In spite of recent events in Utah and nationwide that may make it appear to be otherwise, fatalities at the hands of police officers are infrequent. These traumatic and highly contested incidents raise at least two questions: First, why don’t police shoot suspects in the leg? And, second, are police taught to shoot to kill?
By law, officers are trained and mandated to use the least amount of force necessary to effect an arrest and to do so safely. However, it does not mean officers should put themselves at a disadvantage or in a position where they could be injured or killed.
Below are some of the things officers learn with training and experience.
Shooting someone in the leg doesn’t mean he or she will stop shooting.
The same is true of someone who is shot in the arm or shoulder, or even in the chest. Shooting someone in the leg won’t necessarily stop him or her from standing, walking or even running. Shooting someone in the leg doesn’t even mean he or she will fall to the ground. And, it doesn’t mean the individual will stop feloniously aiming a gun at a police officer or an innocent citizen and pulling the trigger.
Even so, if an officer did shoot someone in the leg, there is a chance it could sever the femoral artery and still potentially end that person’s life.
Officers learn how difficult it is to shoot accurately under stress.
An officer can be a near-perfect shooter on the range, but the stress of a real firefight is totally different. Shooting a gun out of a person’s hand is nearly impossible, and it would be dangerous to attempt in real life.
Even if an officer wanted to shoot someone in an appendage (leg or arm), doing so would be incredibly difficult to do under stress. Real gunfights are not static; they’re mobile. Trying to hit a moving leg or arm would put an officer at a greater disadvantage than he or she already faces.
Action is faster than reaction.
Since police react to illegal confrontations, they’re at a disadvantage. Rarely is an officer ready for a lethal confrontation, even if his or her gun is already drawn. Police are not the aggressors; they are the defenders. They have to perceive and process the threat and then act based on a subject’s actions. The reaction won’t always be a lethal option either.
Those with felonious intentions have the upper hand because police cannot read their minds. Those with murderous intentions have already made up their minds they’re going to murder, attack or otherwise injure another person, including a police officer. Criminals have the tactical advantage because they determine when to make the surprise attack. Police aren’t the ambushers or the murderers, but a lot of police have been both ambushed and murdered.
Reacting to a threat decreases an officer’s effectiveness.
Because an officer must react to another person’s actions, it changes the physical (cognitive) and mental (psychological) response more drastically than if the officer were the attacker. This causes a breakdown of cognitive and psychological performance. Reaction would do that to most people, particularly when feeling the mental and physiological effects of possibly being critically wounded or killed.
Research by Dr. Bill Lewsinski of the Force Science Research Center shows that during actual officer-involved shooting incidents, officers only accurately hit moving threats 14 percent of the time at distance under 10 feet. On the corollary, attackers successfully hit officers 68 percent of the time within the same distance. At such rates, it’s fortunate that more police officers aren’t killed.
This underscores two concerns: First, the near impossibility of an officer being able to shoot a weapon-wielding subject in the leg, and second, the need for law enforcement officers to be really good at their jobs.
Kenneth Murray, a leading law enforcement trainer, said he may not want protector classes to take pleasure from shooting and injuring others, "but they must be good at it" for the sake of protecting their lives and the lives of the citizens they protect.
Law enforcement officers are taught to shoot center mass on a threat or target.
Those who shoot closer to the thoracic cavity on realistic-looking human targets and silhouettes score higher during live-fire training. Why? Because there is a higher likelihood that hitting a person in that area will stop him or her, but it won’t necessarily kill him or her.
Moreover, the most obvious reason for shooting center mass is because that portion of the body is a larger target than, say, a leg.
It is incorrect to believe that if someone gets shot in the chest he or she will die.
Shooting someone in the thoracic cavity or abdomen may not even stop him or her. First responders and emergency medical personnel see plenty of people who survive gunshot wounds.
Even after suffering an excruciating lethal hit to the heart, it can still take 10-15 seconds for a person to stop. In that amount of time, a motivated and moderately trained active shooter, for instance, can still murder a dozen people or more, and reload a gun once or twice.
Police are trained to stop the threat.
Police don’t shoot to wound or shoot to kill; they shoot to stop the threat, period. This is not just a manner of semantics either. The moment the threat no longer exists — when a violent criminal stops shooting or drops a weapon, for example — officers stop shooting.
Of course, perceiving and processing this under stress can take time — even one second is a long time in a gunfight — but officers know to quit. Not stopping in a prudent and timely manner would be unjustified and considered excessive force.
To reiterate, officers are not trained to shoot to kill. Instead they are taught to shoot until the threat has ended.
It is a myth to believe that a single shot from a handgun will stop someone.
Police are taught to keep shooting until the threat stops. Traditionally, officers will shoot twice and assess. Some of this is because of ingrained range training, but for their safety and the safety of others, officers should keep shooting until the threat stops. Just because a person is shot once or twice, if an officer can even tell the person was hit, it doesn’t mean that person is incapacitated or no longer a threat.
Police are taught to save lives.
After officers are involved in a lethal confrontation, they are taught to secure the scene to ensure there is no longer a lethal threat to any person. After that, officers will get help for the person they injured, and often times it's the person who just attempted to kill or seriously injure them or others.
Police will do all they can to save that person by calling for emergency medical assistance and, where possible, perform medical treatment.
Police place the lives of others before their own.
In a very real way, law enforcement officers prioritize lives. Police will run into a hail of gunfire to save hostages and other innocent civilians. Police officers stand as the buffer between those who want to harm — as well those who will murder — and those who don’t.
Although it may seem somewhat paradoxical, officers don’t want to end lives when they use deadly force; they want to save lives. As such, law enforcement officers often resolve hundreds of situations without using lethal force.
Using lethal force is always the last resort.
Officers don’t want to kill, but they’ve accepted the possibility that it may happen. And they’ve internalized the moral and legal right and wrong should the worst occur. Officers carry the burden when forced to use lethal force, and it changes their lives forever. They didn’t wake up that day thinking they would kill or injure someone; they reacted as part of their moral and legal obligation to do so.
Police officers are trained to shoot center mass, and although extremely rare, they may even shoot unarmed attackers whom they fear will take away their guns and kill them with it. Officers may present the gun quicker than other tools on their belt because they know that over 20,000 police officers have died in the line of duty, and many of them were murdered. They know action is faster than reaction, so they want to be ready, just in case.
No officer is trained to kill, but he or she understands that shooting someone in the arm or the leg won’t stop the threat either.
The bottom line is officers don’t shoot to kill anyone; they shoot to save lives, including their own.
Jeffrey Denning is a police officer in the Salt Lake City area. He is a former Federal Air Marshal and veteran of the war in Iraq. He is the founder of Warrior SOS and published a book by the same name.